Dunkirk: A contrary view about a movie everyone else loves

Dunkirk doesn’t fail because it’s insufficiently diverse. It fails because, like the Left itself, it ignores individualism and opts for nameless masses.

DunkirkDon’t worry. This is not going to be a review decrying Dunkirk because of its failure to include women, people of color, homosexuals, or differently gendered in its cast of thousands. Instead, I’m going to say the really un-sayable: The movie is boring.

Dunkirk essentially follows three story lines during the evacuation from Dunkirk: a pair of soldiers desperately trying to get on a ship, and being perpetually thwarted by German attacks; a father piloting a pleasure boat from England to Dunkirk, accompanied by his young son and a 17-year-old boy from their community; a few RAF pilots, indistinguishable from each other; and an admiral, who has the most lines and provides a tiny bit of actual context. Barring the trio on the pleasure boat, none of the characters have names or discernible personalities.

Throughout the film, you get to see men on the beach getting bombed, men on ships getting bombed, men in airplanes getting shot down, and people drowning. One sees virtually no blood or wounds. It’s indistinguishable from the computer games my son and his friends used to play.

What also makes Dunkirk indistinguishable from the computer games is the utter lack of context. There’s an “enemy” and there are faceless drones trying to escape the enemy. That’s all. There’s no sense of a valiant democracy taking a stand against a monstrous totalitarian regime, its soldiers fueled into “supermen” by an endless supply of amphetamines, and its wealth and weapons derived from conquest and slave labor. It’s just “soldiers” and “sailors” escaping from “the enemy.” Again, computer game stuff.

What really bugged me about Dunkirk, though, is that this lack of context extended, not just to the nature of the battle but to the individuals being evacuated or doing the evacuating. Dunkirk is essentially Stalin-esque in the way it reduces individuals to meaningless cogs. After all, it is Stalin who is reputed to have said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” This is a statistical movie — and as far as I’m concerned, that is the ultimate insult to the West, which fought for individual liberty, versus Hitler’s Left, which saw humans as cogs for the aggrandizement of state and dictator.

Because the movie was so bleached of life, it was easy to get into its rhythm. Repose, rush, death; repose, rush, death; repose, rush, death. A few moments of anodyne self-cowardice here, another moment of sort-of heroism there. The movie also used an irritating soundtrack, intended to get your heart beating. It had the opposite effect on me, because it was a signal that something would get blown up. Without even unpredictable excitement, the movie also failed in terms of raising my heartbeat.

With writer and director Christopher Nolan’s considerable filmmaking gifts, this could have been an epic film. Instead, it was an epic video game.

Hacksaw Ridge was a much better movie, despite the schmaltzy first half, because it was about individuals responding to extreme situations. In this respect, I found it much more “American” than the Stalin-esque Dunkirk.

  • RobertArvanitis

    A small point about the early schmaltz in “Hacksaw:”
    Some of what seems sentimental is because we live in a far more jaded, even value-less, age.
    There was a time when a man might put on a uniform, and expect to be respected, not spat upon. Or when a general might remember the men in his command from decades ago.

    • Yili Bai

      In an era of a volunteer army, the civilian population is largely disconnected from “the mission.” I know veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq who report meeting civilians who express surprise that these conflicts are ongoing. Americans are much more on top of when the next generation smart phone will hit the shelves than the war effort.

  • Faragon

    Boring is pretty much the norm; there are 6 hours of finger-twiddling for every 3 minutes of action, even in the midst of the fight.

  • Danny Lemieux

    This review very well articulates what has been bothering me about this movie.

  • David Foster

    Review and a discussion thread about the movie at Chicago Boyz. Interesting side note: apparently the yacht owner character was based on Charles Lightoller, who had been Second Officer of the Titanic. Link to an article about Ligtoller and his boat, Dundowner, in Sgt Mom’s review.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundowner_(yacht)

  • David Foster

    Just a couple of weeks ago I watched a pretty good YouTube documentary about Dunkirk:

    The contribution of the rear guard, including French as well as British troops, should not be forgotten.

  • David Foster

    Here’s an article in which Nolan explains what he was trying to do with this film.

    http://time.com/4864049/dunkirk-christopher-nolan-interview/

    “We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.”

    It is true that communal responsibility and heroism are on the decline (although there is plenty of *talk* about communal responsibility), but I don’t see us as living in a great age of individualism, quite the contrary.

    • Yili Bai

      Nolan is contrasting the present with an earlier era of collective national mobilization for a war. Almost every family had someone fighting in World War II. They had a personal investment in defending the homeland. Today only a minority of Americans know someone who has been deployed to a war zone. Few could probably identify the year American troops were sent to Afghanistan. There are British troops there as well and the same is probably true for the UK. That is the disconnect the director was trying to highland in this film.

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  • no remorse

    disappointing in that the beach was way to clean of equipment of all kinds. Also, it did show some but not much about the hundreds who stood and held off the germans with what they had left in there ammo belts to give time for beach rescue.

  • Rich Simon

    Could this be another way of erasing our history. Seems to me stories without context tend to be used to obfuscate.

  • emjaagaard

    We also found the movie disappointing…..if (unlike me) a watcher knew little or nothing of the actual events, I can’t imagine the magnitude of confusion and boredom that would ensue…… The movie worked (for us) neither as “story” NOR as “documentary”….it was just kind of a mess.

    I reject Nolan’s suggestion that Dunkirk was a triumph of “community” in some way…..each of those private individuals who elected to risk their lives to attempt the rescue of their military men made a private and very individual decision to do so. Yes, the Brit military requisitioned the actual boats, but the intent was to have the navy guys run them over and back…..and MANY private citizens piloted their OWN craft over and back.

    When we took a little Thames river boat up to Kew Gardens, the captain pointed out to us the brass plaque above the engine, and explained how HIS FATHER had captained that boat over and back several times, bringing soldiers of the BEF back to England to defend their island against Hitler. HIS FATHER did that – not “the community”, thank you very much…..and the man was (rightfully) filled with pride at what his Dad had volunteered to do!!

    One final point – can anyone explain why that final pilot chose to land his fighter on the beach far from the Brits, where he would certainly be captured by Jerry? I can think of a couple of alternatives, one of which he’d seen BOTH his buddies accomplish earlier – ditching in the water, where he could be rescued by the flotilla.

    Sadly, we found the movie to be a mess……

    • Earl, you wrote a better review than I did. I was able to point out what was wrong, but you went me one better and pointed out why it was wrong. Thank you for that.

    • BurkeanMama

      That was the first thing my son asked when we got out of the movie, why didn’t the pilot land with his army?

  • BurkeanMama

    Agreed. Very disappointed in the film. The men of Dunkirk deserved so much better.

  • Yili Bai

    I completely agree that the film was boring. It was hard to relate to the British soldiers who were difficult to distinguish. I much prefer Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima.” I will say this for Dunkirk, though, it avoids the war film problem of making combat look exciting to a a theatre audience.